Industrial Sustainability: Solar, VFDs, and Energy Management

October 17, 2023 | By: Emily White

Technologies like energy management systems, solar panels, green roofs, and variable frequency drives are redefining operations in industrial real estate. These technologies and systems can drastically enhance efficiency in industrial spaces, meeting the demands of the present while being conscientiously geared towards the future.

Solar Power

Solar power, once a niche energy alternative, has shown rapid improvement in efficiency and cost effectiveness in recent years, and industrial real estate may emerge as a significant beneficiary of this sustainable technology. Solar panels, or photovoltaic (PV) cells, convert sunlight into electricity. When photons from sunlight strike these cells, they release electrons from atoms, generating a flow of electricity. This direct current (DC) is then converted into alternating current (AC) by inverters, making it usable for industrial tenants.

With solar installations, industrial properties can produce a significant portion of their daily energy needs, leading to reduced utility bills. Over time, the initial investment in solar panels pays for itself through these savings. Solar installations also reduce a property’s reliance on the grid, which can be particularly advantageous during peak hours when energy prices spike, or during outages.

Currently, solar technology is seeing widespread use in places like California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. There are federal and state tax abatements issued for particular installation of solar panels on industrial assets. You can qualify for more relief depending on the age of the building. Industrial facilities often have large expanses of unused rooftop space, making them prime candidates for large-scale solar installations.

Green Roofs

Green roofs, also known as living roofs or eco-roofs, represent an innovative blend of architecture and ecology. Particularly in the context of industrial real estate, these roofs are not just about aesthetic appeal but have deep-rooted functional and environmental advantages. A green roof is a layered structure, usually installed on the flat or slightly sloped surfaces of buildings. It primarily consists of a waterproofing membrane, root barrier, drainage system, growing medium (soil), and vegetation.

Depending on the depth of the substrate and the type of plants grown, green roofs can be categorized into ‘extensive’ (shallow, lightweight with groundcovers) and ‘intensive’ (deeper, can support larger plants and even trees). One of the standout benefits of green roofs is their insulating properties. They can significantly reduce the amount of heat entering a building during summer and retain warmth during winter, leading to energy savings in HVAC systems.

Plants naturally filter pollutants and carbon dioxide from the air, releasing oxygen. A sizable green roof on an industrial facility can contribute to improving the local air quality. Additionally, the substrate and plants in green roofs can function as sound insulators, absorbing and deflecting noise, which can be especially useful in noisy industrial environments. While the advantages are numerous, green roofs do come with challenges. The initial installation cost is higher than traditional roofing, and proper structural analysis is necessary to ensure the building can manage the additional weight. Maintenance, though generally low, is essential to keep the vegetation healthy and the roof functional.

Energy Management Systems

At its core, an Energy Management System (EMS) is a computer-aided tool used for monitoring, measuring, and controlling energy consumption in a building or facility. An EMS integrates with various subsystems—like HVAC, lighting, and machinery—to collect data and, based on analysis, execute decisions to optimize energy use. One the major benefits of an EMS is the ability to provide instant feedback on energy usage, enabling swift decision-making when anomalies are detected. These systems can also leverage historical data to predict future energy needs, allowing for better planning and procurement strategies.

Overall, energy management systems are selected by the individual tenants in industrial real estate. Landlords can sometimes stipulate sustainability standards in leases, but this is more driven by local and state municipalities. Ultimately, this is solely the tenant’s decision in how they choose to find energy efficiencies within their space. When paired with other efficient technologies like VFDs, high efficiency HVAC systems, and AI-powered IoT devices, an optimized EMS can enable incredible energy savings and drastic usage reductions. Eventually, these systems may autonomously manage energy, interfacing with a web of connected devices, predicting energy needs using advanced algorithms, and making real-time adjustments for unforeseen operational changes.

Variable Frequency Drives

Variable Frequency Drives, commonly referred to as VFDs, have become an indispensable technology in industrial real estate, particularly in applications that involve motor-driven equipment. A VFD is an electronic system designed to control the speed and torque output of an electric motor. Motors in industrial facilities often do not need to always run at their full capacity. VFDs adjust the frequency and voltage supplied to the motor based on the real-time requirements of the operation.

VFDs are occasionally installed on the building roof top units (RTUs) and some states will provide tax relief if the tenant can provide data to show efficiencies.  Similar to EMS, the tenant is solely responsible for HVAC in the warehouse, office and roof areas. Industrial real estate encompasses a wide range of activities – from manufacturing and assembly lines to warehousing and logistics. Many of these operations involve motorized machinery such as conveyor belts, fans, pumps, and compressors.

Previously, these motors would operate at a constant speed, leading to energy wastage when full capacity was not needed. With VFDs, these motors can now operate at variable speeds, optimizing energy usage. For example, a water pump can slow down during times of lower demand, or a conveyor belt can adjust its speed based on the production line’s pace. By allowing motors to operate only at the necessary speed, VFDs can lead to energy savings of up to 50 percent in certain applications. VFDs can also reduce the strain on attached motors, extending the equipment’s lifespan and reducing maintenance costs. VFDs also offer better process control, ensuring machinery operates exactly as needed.

Investing in Tomorrow

The fusion of technology and sustainability in industrial real estate is not a passing trend; it is the future. As industrial real estate continues to evolve, these technologies will play a pivotal role in enhancing numerous aspects of managing our properties, from giving greater control and understanding of how our properties are used through IoT devices and occupancy sensors, to lowering energy usage through energy management systems and VFDs. Today’s efficient technologies are laying a foundation for a resilient, adaptable, and thriving industrial ecosystem for decades to come.

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